Smithsonian NMAI - Photo Courtesy David Amram
The Longest Walk, 1978

What Do We Do When Our Heroes Die? Native American Leadership and the Future

Gyasi Ross

In case you live under a rock, the great Muhammad Ali died this past Friday. 

Rightly or wrongly, Muhammad Ali was the face of black America for much of the past 50 years. For much of America he symbolized the vocal, prideful and urgent voice of black youth when he predicted loudly that he would knock out the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston.  He did exactly what he said. He symbolized the angry/scary black activist, slighted for hundreds of years, when he announced that he was joining the Nation of Islam (“Black Muslims” at the time) and that he would change his name from “Cassius Clay” to “Muhammad Ali.”  He symbolized tolerance and maturity when he became a symbol of peace, a diplomat and an ambassador.  He became mainstream, as black culture did. 

Muhammad Ali shepherded race relations in America for such a very long time—sometimes unintentionally—and now he’s gone.  America is entering a new era and will have to figure out what that means. 

It got me thinking about the Native heroes, legends, warriors and leaders that we’ve lost within the past couple of years. Wilma Mankiller, Russell Means, Billy Frank, Jr., Elouise Cobell, Darrell Robes Kipp, Harold Belmont, Alison Bridges Gottfriedson, Charles "Etok" Edwardsen Jr, John Trudell.  There are others, of course. All of these leaders had a level of accountability to larger organizations and Nations, yet most of them worked outside the structure of being an elected official. 

Those Native folks were revolutionaries, powerful people who conceptualized and then executed outside-the-box solutions to serious, serious issues within Native communities. Just like Muhammad Ali, they have been the faces of Native America for a very long time—the rejection, the power, the beauty, the anger and the brilliance. All of these heroes have different periods of activity and inactivity—it seems impossible to sustain that revolutionary fire all the time.  Yet like Muhammad Ali, we did not have to see them every single day or even once a year. It did not matter; we were just much more at peace and comfortable knowing that they were there.  Our security blankets.  That is not to imply that these folks were perfect or all-knowing or anything of the sort—they had flaws and shortcomings just like anybody else.  But they were unquestionably recognized by others within their communities as “leaders.”

And now they’re resting, not able to give us the day-to-day instruction that they once did. 

That makes me slightly nervous for the future; we’re going to lose more leaders. That’s just the way life goes—the older generation of leaders passes on and the next generation tries to carry on and indeed further the work of the older generations.  It seems like we’re trying to do that through accessing the more conventional and mainstream routes to influence—there are several Natives who decided to run for the US House or Representatives, for example.  There are also a myriad of Natives seeking other public offices as well.  That’s good—that’s positive and important. It means that we’re leaving no stones unturned and trying to do whatever we can to help our communities, whether it’s conventional politics or grassroots work. 

We need that. 

Then there are inter-tribal organizations like National Congress of American and others that are comprised mainly of tribal elected officials.  Like the folks running for political office in mainstream politics, these organizations focus primarily on traditional means of access and influence. That’s very important and we can’t let the foot off the gas. 

But one of the many beautiful things about those leaders—whether Ali or Uncle Billy Frank, Jr. or Russell Means or Elouise Cobell or Alison Gottfriedson Bridges or Charles "Etok" Edwardsen Jr.—is that they were not within the system and didn’t have to play by the same rules. That previous generation of leaders could get arrested and did not have to worry about messing up their public image (Note: Chairman Brian Cladoosby of the Swinomish Tribe, a disciple of Uncle Billy Frank, Jr. recently challenged the State of Washington’s regulation of tribal fishing in a pretty hilarious fashion). Alternatively, when you become a mainstream politician there is an expectation that you will follow mainstream rules. When you’re a lawyer, you’re expected to follow the law. 

It comes with the territory. 

We need Native politicians.  We need Native lawyers.  But we also desperately need hell raisers.  We also need subversive leaders who are willing to get arrested, to hold our own elected officials accountable, to be able to say inflammatory things and to not be constrained by rules of politeness and political correctness in order to make a point (I wish I could hear Russell Means’ take on Donald Trump).  Like Ali did. Like Russell did. Like Uncle Billy did. Like Alison did. Like Elouise Cobell did.  Of course those subversive leaders have to be accountable to their communities; that will happen with honest communication and laying out expectations. 

We’ve got to communicate folks, before all of our legends and leaders die. We should be in communication across generations anyway, but all of these deaths recently just make it more urgent.  We need to get the game plan, a succession plan—“How was Hank Adams able to accomplish this?”  “How did Buffy Sainte Marie create allies from so many from different communities?”  Mentorship.  Our generation and future generations of Native people are going to be hurting if we don’t.  

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

Instagram: BigIndianGyasi


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smartphoenixnavajo's picture
Submitted by smartphoenixnavajo on
Thank you for taking us down your memory lane. But, its over and never coming back again, so get over it. Today we do not need to "reinvent the wheel", rather its a whole different world. Your focus on "conventional and mainstream" influence has blinded you to a whole world of indigenous peoples who occupy and further our peoples. I for one know many who are doctors, directors and the like. Sure, I acknowledge the bridge of backs of those you mentioned, but I also acknowledge my own parents, more than any of those you mentioned. Some of which went 'power hungry' and thought they were beyond the law, something we see too often now. So just give thanks to what they might have done. The indian wars are over, now its our own people we also fight against and thats a sobering reality, that continues to grow.

alexjacobs's picture
Submitted by alexjacobs on
Again smartphonenixnavajo you are TooSmart for your own good or anyone's good really. You always criticize, you seem to hate other NDNs, we who are not as smart as you, yet where do those Smarts come from, the schools and instututions that helped cause these issues, yes, Colonization and Decolonization, and you are in the middle of it, you are Con and can't Decon. The Indian Wars will never be over that's why need strong, insightful, courageous leaders... those based in language and culture can offer more than those who are too smart in ways of schools, institutions, media. Muhammad Ali was basically self taught, a man of native intelligence, he learned the hard way, he was a leader. We always need leaders.